Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

‘Dreaming the Beatles’ Author Rob Sheffield on the Fab Four’s Unstoppable Pop

May 17, 2017

I wonder if that longevity has something to do with another key element of the book — that The Beatles were “a pop group” and “a rock band,” and you talk about them as both.

Sheffield: The fact that they play in both of those leagues is one of the really weird things about them. There’s something utopian about the way they float over that distinction. Their original concept of “rock and roll,” which is what they called it when they were just starting out — it’s amazing how expansive it was. They were really into playing blues, R&B, country, American rockabilly, corny cheesy show tunes, upscale New York professional-songcraft stuff like Goffin and King, girl-group stuff.

It was controversial, even at the time when they were playing in Liverpool. Paul has this funny story in his book about how the other Liverpool bands thought The Beatles were good at playing blues covers, and that it was lame that they wanted to play pop stuff. Mick Jagger was saying, “We were blues purists. We like pop stuff, but we would never do it onstage.” But [Motörhead singer and bassist] Lemmy talked about seeing The Beatles at the Cavern Club, and he was like, “That’s the most ferocious live band I’ve ever seen.” The idea of a 16-year-old Lemmy going to the Cavern for the lunchtime show, and all these office girls who are there with their hair in rollers, dancing around their handbags.

It’s funny that the definitions of rock and pop became more exclusive and narrow-minded since then. The Beatles were beyond that from the beginning. Their conception of rock and roll was so wide-ranging and so imaginative that there was something revolutionary about it. They would try playing anything new: Motown, Carl Perkins, The Music Man, all on the same record or in the same set. They were very self-consciously provocative about that. Even [girl groups like] the Marvelettes or the Shirelles or the Chiffons. [The Beatles] liked singing in that girl-group style of vocals together. Like, no, The Rolling Stones did not do that.

It’s my great pleasure to make my MTV News debut by interviewing Rob Sheffield about his tremendous new book Dreaming the Beatles, the best thing about the band I’ve ever read. It sidesteps the canonicity argument completely and talks about how the Beatles’ presence in pop culture didn’t just end with their amazing eight-year run, but continued to grow and change and get even bigger among different groups of kids and musicians every decade since. Absolutely stellar work, and I’m so glad I got to pick Rob’s brain about it.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 62!

May 1, 2017

A Game of Thrones Revisited
The Boiled Leather Audio Hour goes back to the beginning! Sean & Stefan kick off their great A Song of Ice and Fire reread project with an episode dedicated entirely to A Game of Thrones, the novel that started it all. What did George R.R. Martin do as a writer to distinguish his work from the epic fantasy hordes? How has he changed as a writer since? Which elements turned out to matter, which didn’t, and which are we still scratching our heads about? The answers to all these questions, plus our takes on all the major characters (teaser: Sean compares Ned Stark to the Dude from The Big Lebowski), await you in this episode!

DOWNLOAD EPISODE 62

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Game of Unknowns Glossary: Every Major Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones Fan Theory

December 15, 2015

Like the Spanish Inquisition before him, George R.R. Martin’s chief weapon is surprise. The author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series has packed his epic-fantasy novels with unpredictable plot twists — and for every shocking revelation, there’s an equally tantalizing secret that stays hidden, riddle that remains unsolved, or prophecy that has yet to be properly decoded. Game of Thrones, the show based on the books, has largely stayed away from Martin’s mix of hints, clues, visions, and red herrings, which is probably wise; no one wants a repeat of Lost, where fans went so berserk trying to figure out what was going to happen in advance that the show itself became an afterthought.

But readers have had almost two decades to pore over and ponder every line in Martin’s novels, beginning with the first volume, 1996’s A Game of Thrones. From Tumblr to Reddit to major ASOIAF fansites likewesteros.organd Tower of the Hand — as well as my and my co-author’s own sites All Leather Must Be Boiled and the Nerdstream Era, and our podcast, “The Boiled Leather Audio Hour” — self-taught experts and avid fans have advanced literally hundreds of theories about the past and future of the story, from slam-dunk analysis that’s been all but accepted as fact to tinfoil-hat crackpottery that makes the Kennedy assassination look as clear-cut as an episode of Murder, She Wrote. The sensation of stumbling across this incredibly vast trove of deep-cut knowledge for the first time is a memory many readers share: “Holy shit — Ned Stark isn’t Jon Snow’s dad?”

Below, you’ll find 50 of the most popular, compelling, convincing, and/or crazy theories out there. Consider it early prep for Game of Thrones’ sixth season, out in April. Dig in, but be warned: The Song will not remain the same.

With an editorial assist by our own Stefan Sasse, I wrote 10,000 words on 50 ASoIaF/GoT theories. This is the least sane thing I’ve ever been paid to do.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 41!

September 29, 2015

The Walking Dead in Westeros

We’re comparing two of the biggest shows on television in this episode of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. One of them is an adaptation of a popular staple of nerd culture—a genre work that had only appeared in print before—which has translated its bleak themes, wide scope, and controversial use of violence into a modern-day ratings blockbuster. The other is Game of Thrones.

That’s right—the BLAH Boys are taking on The Walking Dead, and its current spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, by contrasting the shows and their source material to Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. How does their treatment of violence in an unforgiving world of real and supernatural menace differ? What do the relationships between the original works by George R.R. Martin, Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard and their adaptations by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and AMC’s land of a thousand showrunners reveal about their respective ideas, ideals, aesthetics, and ethics? Which shows really deserve our moral outrage, and why? We’ll be examining all these questions and more. And one of us, at least, will be getting really freaking worked up. Enjoy!

Download Episode 41

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Sean on the Fear the Walking Dead pilot.

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The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 38!

April 24, 2015

The Alayne Game: Discussing the New “The Winds of Winter” Sample Chapter and the Start of “Game of Thrones” Season Five

BLAH is back with two, count ‘em, two topics! This go-round, Stefan & Sean tackle the new “Alayne” sample chapter from The Winds of Winter and the first two episodes of Game of Thrones Season Five. What’s in store for Sansa in book six? What’s our read on GoTs05e01-02′s plotlines and performances? Listen and learn, ladies and gents! And while you do, you’ll discover some very happy news from House Sasse, as well as musical surprise or two. Enjoy!

Download Episode 38

Additional links:

The Alayne TWoW sample chapter.

Sean’s GoT reviews.

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Lyanna Sasse holds court.

Theme music via Kevin MacLeod’s Incompetech.com.

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Suppressive Persons: “Going Clear,” Scientology, and the Appeal of Absolutism

March 29, 2015

In Hubbard’s native territory of science fiction, “worldbuilding” is a term used to describe the way writers construct the elaborate sociopolitical, scientific, geographic, and historical framework for the imaginary world in which their stories take place. In a way, Hubbard may well have pulled off the greatest act of worldbuilding in history. Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien, or George R.R. Martin, or Stan Lee & Jack Kirby had not stopped at merely creating and writing about Middle-earth and Westeros and the Marvel Universe, but overlaid those fictional worlds atop our own until they became indistinguishable not just to their tens of thousands of followers and fans, but to the creators themselves.

It’s reminiscent of Going Clear’s showstopper scene, a Machiavellian game of musical chairs Miscavige imposed on disgraced Church officials to determine their fates, played to the tune of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Going Clear’s central assertion is that in art and life alike, thinking people must make that determination, and must be trusted to do it for themselves. It denies its viewers the certainty Scientology itself promises to provide, which may be its most subversive act of all. Heroes to be worshipped, villains to be eradicated—Going Clear asks us to leave them to the pages of fiction and the fever dreams of fundamentalists. Neither are in short supply, inside Scientology or out.

I reviewed Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for the New York Observer, with a focus on how the film dismantles black-and-white thinking both as journalism/activism and as art. The movie airs tonight at 8pm on HBO, and I hope you’ll watch it.

“Clear” and Present Danger: Alex Gibney on His Bold Scientology Doc

March 19, 2015

Though it helps humanize many current and former believers, Going Clear pulls no punches against Scientology’s biggest “celebrity megaphones” — especially its superstar public face, Tom Cruise. Both the book and film allege that Cruise, a close friend of Miscavige (who was the best man at the actor’s wedding), has benefited for years from a labor force of Sea Org clergy members. “I’m singling him out,” Wright says. “More people got interested in Scientology because of Tom Cruise than any other individual, and he knows what’s going on. He could effect change, and it’s on his shoulders that he should.”

Gibney is harsher still. “For [Cruise] not to denounce, or at least investigate, what’s going on seems appalling to me,” he says. “He gets a lot of money and a lot of privilege from a lot of fans, and the idea that allows the vulnerable to be preyed upon in his name seems reprehensible.” In fact, Going Clear claims that Cruise’s own ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, fell victim to Scientology’s excesses herself. According to high-ranking defector Marty Rathbun, the Church wiretapped Kidman as part of a multifaceted campaign to drive the couple apart when Miscavige felt she was pulling him away from his faith. Even to readers of Wright’s book, this is breaking news.

“That was something Marty told me in my interview,” Gibney says. “When he spoke to Larry for the book, emotionally, he still had one foot in the Church. [Rathbun] had been a key enforcer for them. To unravel those big lies takes years, and to undo the psychological damage that was done to him by the Church is a slow healing process. He was able to say things now about how aggressive the Church was, in terms of trying to get Cruise back, that he might not have been willing to say before.”

I interviewed Oscar and Emmy–winning director Alex Gibney, Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, and high-ranking Scientology defector Mike Rinder about thir upcoming HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for Rolling Stone. I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

On “objective criticism”

December 31, 2014

dagsg asked: Do you have any opinion why, when some piece of art (e.g. GoT) might appear to be have dodgy or questionable elements (or changes in many cases) in closer inspection, modern fandoms almost always suspect malevolence behind it? Instead of explaining it with usually more plausible ignorance and/or stupidity (which also might sound a bit harsh in some cases).

I’ve written about this before, I know, and I’m sure more articulately than I’m about to, but: In contemporary criticism of art, both professional and fandom-based, several prevalent approaches that on the surface appear to have little in common are all methods of doing the same thing, which is turning the evaluation of the work, which in the case of both the evaluation and the work is something inherently subjective and complex and capable of containing multiple contradictory messages and meanings, into something objective and simple.

“Purists” turn to fidelity to the source material. “Social justice warriors,” whether that term is being externally applied as a pejorative or self-applied as a tongue-in-cheek but proud descriptor of priorities (and I would consider myself the latter; it’s one of the reasons I started this tumblr years ago and started writing about this material in this way), as well as their reactionary opponents, apply sociopolitical metrics. Theory-mongers focus on “solving” art by teasing out clues and connections to unearth hidden truths or predict a work’s conclusion. Stans, shippers, even the “bad fans” of antiheroic characters so frequently lamented by film and TV critics who find them in the comment threads and twitter exchanges resulting from their reviews, prioritize the treatment of their favorite characters and relationships.

But in each case, the end result is a way to feel fairly to totally confident that art can be right or wrong; that the artists who make it, to speak to your question directly, can be right or wrong and condemned or praised; and that you, as a critic, can be right or wrong about that art and that artist in turn. Each approach has its legitimate benefits — in particular I believe that politics are a part of all art and MUST be addressed and considered — but each approach is ultimately reductive and contrary to what I understand art and criticism to be if no further steps to interrogate the work and one’s feelings about it are taken. Art is big and messy. Making it, consuming it, writing about it — these are inherently risky propositions. The risk should be embraced if we are to do anything worthwhile.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 35!

December 1, 2014

Four Against the World: A “World of Ice and Fire” Roundtable feat. Steven Attewell and Amin Javadi

Celebrate Cyber Monday the old-fashioned way: in boiled leather! The Boiled Leather Audio Hour is back for our second episode in one week, and once again it’s our biggest to date. Since no one episode, and no two hosts, could contain The World of Ice and Fire, Stefan and I have tapped Race for the Iron Throne’s Steven Attewell and A Podcast of Ice and Fire’s Amin Javadi to join in the discussion of George R.R. Martin, Elio M. García Jr., and Linda Antonsson’s seemingly inexhaustible world book. We tackle many of the topics we missed in our first episode on the book, and double back on a few besides.

One more note and then it’s on with the show: Thank you so much for your generous donations to BLAH’s emergency tech-crisis fund. Your support has done a great deal to help defray the cost of the new computer and software I needed to continue recording the podcast. If you haven’t already, and you’re still in a spending mood after all those hot online deals, and if you enjoy the show or the blogs enough to warrant it, you can donate via paypal here. Any amount is extraordinarily appreciated.

Alright, that concludes our message from the Iron Bank. Check the links below for a host of posts and podcasts this fearsome foursome has already done on the book, then listen and enjoy!

Donate here.

Mirror here.

Sean & Stefan’s previous BLAH episode on TWoIaF

Amin interviews Elio & Linda about the making of TWoIaF for A Podcast of Ice and Fire

The whole Podcast of Ice and Fire gang discusses TWoIaF

Steven’s chapter-by-chapter analysis of TWoIaF

Sean’s Rolling Stone article: The 10 Craziest Things We Learned from The World of Ice and Fire

Stefan’s “ruminations” on TWoIaF for Tower of the Hand

Previous episodes here.

Podcast RSS feed here.

iTunes page here.

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Amin’s podcast here.

Amin’s twitter here.

Steven’s blog here.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 34!

November 24, 2014

Around the World: Discussing “The World of Ice and Fire”

We’re back, and a world awaits! Released with deserved fanfare a few weeks ago, The World of Ice and Fire, the long-awaited world book by George R.R. Martin and his co-authors Elio M. García Jr. and Linda Antonsson of Westeros.org, has proven to be an extraordinarily fecund source of information, speculation, and general wonderment. That’s a pretty fair characterization of this episode of The Boiled Leather Audio Hour, as a matter of fact: No muss, no fuss, just me and Stefan the best and most baffling moments of this extensive fake history in our biggest episode yet.

But before you begin, a quick housekeeping note: Stefan and I haven’t been able to record a podcast since July, as a series of professional, personal, and (most insurmountably) technical issues scuttled half a dozen different scheduled recording times. The resolution of these issues necessitated the purchase of a whole new computer and set of software, which I was happy to do, but which obviously took a hefty chunk out of the old Boiled Leather budget.

So if you enjoy The Boiled Leather Audio Hour, boiledleather.com, The Nerdstream Era, or any of our assorted projects, please consider clicking here to donate a few dollars to help offset the cost of the show via PayPal. (There’s also a Donate button at the top of boiledleather.com.) You all have been so tremendously complimentary and supportive, and we’re extraordinarily grateful that you listen!

Donate here.

Mirror here.

Sean’s Rolling Stone article: The 10 Craziest Things We Learned from The World of Ice and Fire

Stefan’s “ruminations” on TWoIaF for Tower of the Hand

Sean’s essay on the Deep Ones

Sean betting sixty bucks that Tyrion is Aerys’s son

Previous episodes here.

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Sean’s blog here.

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The 10 Craziest Things We Learned from “The World of Ice and Fire”

November 3, 2014

2. Tywin Lannister was an even bigger bastard than we thought.

Before he became the not-so-proud patriarch of the dysfunctional Lannister clan, the future Lord Tywin was a fed-up heir trying to clean up his weak father’s messes. As you might expect from the future architect of the Red Wedding, this mostly involved killing a lot of people. The most famous incident involved Tywin’s slaughter of every last man, woman, and child from House Reyne, who’d risen in rebellion against their Lannister overlords. In both the books and the show, Tywin’s revenge was immortalized in the song “The Rains of Castamere”; the HBO series has featured versions by both the National and Sigur Ros, and when the band at the Red Wedding started playing it, that was the tip-off that the shit was about to hit the fan.

But we’d never learned the specifics of the massacre until now, and they’re somehow even more cold-blooded than the song made it sound. Castamere, the Reynes’ castle, was a mostly subterranean stronghold, extending deep underground into the old gold and silver mines through which the house had made its fortune. When Tywin attacked, the Reynes and their followers retreated underground, thinking the complex below was impervious to assault. It was — but it wasn’t waterproof. Tywin had his men redirect a river into the few remaining cracks and crevices. Tywin’s rain washed the Reynes right out of existence.

The 10 Craziest Things We Learned From ‘The World of Ice & Fire’ | Rolling Stone

I wrote up a list of weird, wild, wonderful stuff from The World of Ice and Fire for Rolling Stone. In other words, the publication that gave us Hunter S. Thompson paid me to write about Sothoryos. This is bat country!

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 32!

July 8, 2014

Going Rogue: Discussing “The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother”

Another chapter from the GRRMArillion? You betcha! Rogues, the latest cross-genre anthology edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, is out, and you know what that means: another long short story/novella set in the world of Ice and Fire and written by Martin himself. As was the case with Dangerous Women‘s “The Princess and the Queen,” Martin’s contribution this time around is an excerpt from the larger history of the Targaryen dynasty eventually to be published in expanded form as Fire and Blood. And it turns out it’s a direct prequel to “The Princess and the Queen”‘s tale of internecine Targaryen civil war — like, it ends the moment “TPatQ” begins. As such, it casts many of the events and characters of that story in a whole new light. And like that story, it strrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrretches the boundaries of the rubric for its inclusion in the anthology in which it appears. Is it worth it? Listen and find out! (And try not to be perturbed by the sounds of chaos in revelry in the background, as Stefan’s native Germany defeats a rival in the World Cup whilst we record. Just imagine we’re discussing this over a bowl o’ brown in the stews of Flea Bottom. I know I always do!)

Stefan’s review of “The Rogue Prince” for Tower of the Hand

Mirror here.

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The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 31!

June 23, 2014

Rhoyne Like Hell: Westeros.org’s Rhoynar-centric “The World of Ice and Fire” Excerpt

The bodies haven’t even been removed from the battlefield of our last podcast, but Stefan and I are back already with a brand-new BLAH! Today we’re talking about the excerpt from George R.R. Martin, Elio García Jr., and Linda Antonsson’s The World of Ice and Fire about the Rhoynar, which was posted a few weeks ago on the latter two writer’s seminal Westeros.org website. Its title, “The Ten Thousand Ships,” is somewhat inapt given that it doesn’t in fact cover the naval exodus of the people of the Rhoyne from that Essosi river to the southern lands of Dorne in Westeros. But there’s plenty to talk about up until that point, from the sudden revelation that an entire water-based form of magic exists (or existed) to the wartime conduct of Old Valyria and its allies. Saddle up a turtle and enjoy!

Mirror here.

Previous episodes here.

Podcast RSS feed here.

iTunes page here.

Sean’s blog here.

Stefan’s blog here.

Book Time/Comics Time: A Wizard of Earthsea/July Diary 2013

July 18, 2013

Over at Vorpalizer, I wrote about A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, and how it derives much of its strength from its depiction of physical and emotional isolation, a relatively rare thing for fantasy. I think it struck a nerve with people.

I also wrote about Gabrielle Bell’s July diary comics, 2013 edition. I think they’re the best she’s done.

Vorpalizer

February 6, 2013

I’m going to be writing about science fiction, fantasy, horror etc. with some dayjob coworkers at our new group blog Vorpalizer.com. I got started with posts on Michael DeForge’s Ant Comic and Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. Come check it out.

Book reports

February 4, 2011

One of my favorite things to do (and what this says about me I couldn’t begin to guess) is backlog enough comics reviews that I can take a few weeks off from the funnybook grind and plow my way through a suitably ambitious prose-reading project. This winter that project is apparently reading fantastic-fiction series written for young adults. First up was Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, which I’ve talked about a bit before. Christmas almost always puts me in the mood for these books, just like seeing bugs congregate around my houselights when I take the garbage out at night makes me want to re-read Stephen King’s “The Mist” every summer. The Dark Is Rising, which gave the series its name, contains some marvelously Christmasy stand-offs between good and evil in the English countryside, involving carols like “Good King Wenceslas,” constant references to Midwinter’s Day, the magical properties of holly, and so forth — the ancient Britannipagan roots of the Christmas traditions we know today. But it’s also the second book in the series; the first, Over Sea, Under Stone, was written some years before the rest and is much more a children’s mystery and much less an overt fantasy. So you kind of have to buckle down and commit to reading the whole megillah before you get to the candles and wassails and mince pies and so forth (whereas with “The Mist,” you get a sweltering summer instantly and giant insects crawling across supermarket windows within half an hour’s reading), which is an investment. But this year I felt up to the challenge, and thus over the holiday break I took a crack at the whole series for the first time in eight or nine years. I ended up quite impressed by how much mileage Cooper could get out of merely describing how her conflict between the Lords of Light and Dark — and I mean sheer description, an endless succession of infodumps. Any time our young chosen-one hero Will confronts the enemy, the rules governing their conflict are simply asserted, either by the more experienced characters or, after he reads a book that literally teaches him everything ever, by Will himself, rather than uncovered through action. It’s not a choice I’d have made, certainly…and yet it never feels lazy, somehow. Why? Because Cooper’s overriding theme is that pure Light and pure Dark are both hard masters. Having all the usual fantasy story beats arrived at not through struggle or coincidence but by through “it is the way it is, the way it must be” rules and prophecies and plans and destinies makes perfect sense in a world where even the heroes are resigned to the occasional destruction of the souls of normal humans with the misfortune to be caught up in the conflict. Don’t get me wrong, this series isn’t at all about the necessity for Hard Men In A Dangerous World; indeed I’m not sure there’s any appropriate ideological/allegorical reading to be applied to it. It’s more a combination of Cooper pursuing the brand of fantasy that most intrigued her — lofty and explicitly Arthurian — and then occasionally, and particularly in the masterful Newbery Medal-winning fourth volume The Grey King, chronicling the emotional effect such cold purity has on we hot, impure humans. It’s a fantasy series with a lot of images that shine brightly — the Black Rider, the White Rider, the Six Signs, the Afanc, the Mari Lwyd — but also sting.

Far closer to ground level is Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Like Cooper, Alexander drew heavily on Welsh legends, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. On the surface it’s the most (and prior to A Song of Ice and Fire, the only) thoroughly Tolkien-indebted fantasy series I’ve ever read, albeit one written on the reading level of The Hobbit throughout its five proper installments and subsequent collection of prequel short stories. There’s a dark lord (Arawn, Lord of Death) who rules a stronghold at the edge of the known world (Annuvin) and sends his undead thralls (the Cauldron-Born) against a motley crew of various beings (the Companions) masterminded by a wizened wizard (Dallben) and spearheaded by an unlikely-hero hick (Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper) and his scion-of-royalty guide (Prince Gwydion of the Sons of Don) whose home is eventually besieged (Caer Dathyl). Where Alexander distinguishes himself from the good Professor is in the welcome regularity with which he drives home the central theme of the book: “Please put in the hard work necessary to learn how to not be a jerk.” He depicts Taran’s intellectual, emotional, and ethical growth process in such detail that it’s almost an instructional volume. Taran is never swept along by the mystical conflict with which he becomes entangled on his way to becoming a hero — he trudges and marches and stumbles and picks himself back up and continues to trudge through it. In each book Taran repeatedly is faced with decisions only he can make; he makes them first impetuously, and after learning how that usually works out, with as much care and consideration as he can muster; they either work out or don’t; then — crucially — he accepts responsibility for the results of the decision, accepts the results themselves as the terrain on which he must operate, and endeavors to move forward from there. It’s a constant process of experimentation, failure, contrition, and moving forward with his friends’ support. People try to do right by each other in this book, at all costs. One sacrifice, toward the very end of the book, made me tear up, something I thought I was long past in books like these — it wasn’t even a fatal sacrifice, just one you knew tore the sacrificer’s heart out but didn’t stop him from making it to help the people he cared about. He’d learned not to be a jerk.

I tweeted about all this a few days ago, and two separate people tweeted back in virtually identical terms that the books sound like the anti-Ayn Rand. That’s precisely it. The message is that acting responsibly toward others is really the only way we can gauge responsibility to ourselves — an enormously salutary message, more so now even than when the books were first written over four decades ago. Indeed Arawn Death-Lord’s greatest evil is said to be not his warring and general sorcerous nastiness, but his theft of the skills and secrets that made everyone in Prydain’s lives better once upon a time — better ways to farm and build and sew and create. Arawn took them all and hid them in his own private Galt’s Gulch; Taran’s quest was in part to liberate them, but much more than that it was to work to find his own gifts, and his own limitations, and contribute to the lives of others as best he could.

(In that light it’s hard to find fault with Alexander for his one weakness here, which is that he’s far more willing to harm the characters his main characters care about than he is to harm those main characters, i.e. the ones he and we care about. (This made me appreciate just how much of a taboo George R.R. Martin really shattered, by the way.) Plus, Arawn, the Cauldron-Born, the Huntsmen, and the Horned King are all world-class villains, so on a fantasy-mechanics level there’s still plenty to crow about.)

Finally I’ve just now started Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I don’t know what I was expecting, prose-wise, but it certainly has that slightly-weak-YA-fiction tendency to eliminate subtext and spell everything out. If the heroine has a tragic backstory, she is going to tell you what it is in the opening chapters. If she feels one thing but is forced to say another, she’s going to describe the situation to you in pretty much exactly those terms. In other words, big surprise, the writing is not as strong as George Orwell or William Golding. Don’t go comparing dystopian apples to oranges as I did.

What it has going for it instead is two things, as best I can tell. I only got up to the actual Hunger Games — the Battle Royale-style bread-and-circuses spectacle in which tweens/teenagers from the subjugated populations are forced to fight each other to the death for the sport of the ruling class as a way to show everyone who’s boss every year — today, but obviously as with any such dystopian-future bloodsport set-up, the kill-or-be-killed nature of the Games is pure narrative napalm. You’ve got a built-in structure that keeps people turning the pages, you’ve got a ready-made cast of varying antagonists you can endow with noteworthy quirks, of course you’ve got life or death stakes, and you have the audience’s expectations that at some point your hero (or heroine, in the case of lead character Katniss) will rip the lid off the system and show the world that the game is rigged and the only way to win is not to play. Juicy, pulpy stuff, regardless of how many school summer reading lists it’s on.

The other thing (and again, I’m barely halfway through volume one, so who knows where if anywhere this all leads) is that it makes bracingly literal contemporary culture’s penchant for watching young people display themselves and/or die for our entertainment pleasure. There’s an out-of-nowhere injection of kink before the games begin — Katniss is stripped, shaved, inspected, and tarted up by a team of stylists to help her win over the crowds; she has every expectation that she may be made to perform in front of a live audience of thousands and television audience of millions stark naked, which has apparently happened to the teen contestants in the past — that fairly blew my mind at age 32; if I’d read this when I was part of the target audience I’m not sure if I’d ever think of anything else. That willingness to go there in the face of what I imagine were objections from the folks in charge of placing this thing in libraries was refreshing.

Moreover, the youth of the bloodsport contestants, as mandated by the government, reminds me not just of the simultaneously voyeuristic and condemnatory coverage of teen misbehavior upon which huge swathes of the media depend, but also of the cold hard fact that when wars are called for, what’s really being called for is for young people to travel someplace to kill people and get killed. Again, I’d imagine that if I were a teenager, this would connect with me very hard on some level, even if I weren’t able to quite articulate how.

On a sillier note, I can’t remember the last time I read a book that my mind cast with actors as quickly and irrevocably as it did here. Katniss is Kristen Stewart, skin tone be damned; Gale is Talyor Lautner; Peeta is Armie Hammer minus a few years; Effie is birther queen Orly Taitz with the voice of that “great, great, really great!” woman from Elaine’s office in Seinfeld; Haymitch is Lieutenant Eckhardt from Tim Burton’s Batman; Cinna’s the guy who runs the New York City bridal salon on Say Yes to the Dress. I wonder who will be brutally murdered next.